Qaddafi loyalists flee, rebels eye Bani Walid

NIAMEY, Niger - A large convoy of Libyan soldiers loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi crossed the desert border into Niger and rolled into the frontier town of Agadez late Monday, a resident who is the owner of a local newspaper said.

Meanwhile, rebel forces were reportedly preparing to enter one of the last bastions of Qaddafi loyalist resistance after reaching an apparent agreement to avoid bloodshed.

The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, who saw them arrive.

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At the head of the convoy, he said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Qaddafi.

It was not immediately clear if the convoy included any members of the Qaddafi family or other high-level members of his regime.

Qaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month, though the rebels say at least two of his sons had been in the town of Bani Walid, one of the last remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds, in recent days.

Rebels commanders told the Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera on Tuesday that they intended to enter Bani Walid later in the day, having reached an agreement with delegates from the town to avoid violence.

Thousands of rebel fighters have amassed around Bani Walid for days, preparing for a military offensive to take the town even as negotiations continued for a peaceful handover from Qaddafi loyalists.

CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports that rebels believe Qaddafi himself may even have been in Bani Walid with other members of his family for a brief time after fleeing Tripoli, but he has again eluded capture, apparently leaving the city behind for some as-yet-unknown destination.

CBS News crew fired on near Bani Walid

Moussa Ibrahim, Qaddafi's spokesman and one of his key aides, was still believed to be in the town, rebel officials said.

Ibrahim told a Libyan state television station on Monday that Qaddafi was, "in good health and in high spirits."

The rebel fighters surrounded Bani Walid, but held back on a final assault in hopes of avoiding a bloody battle for the desert town some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli. The rebels say a small but heavily armed force of pro-Qaddafi fighters — at least some of them high-ranking members of his ousted regime — have taken up defensive positions in the town.

The toppled Libyan leader is known to have used battalions of Tuareg fighters who have long-standing ties to Qaddafi. His regime is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Qaddafi.

Qaddafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, where a majority of the population is Tuareg and where the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy. The Sahara Desert market town is the largest city in northern Niger.

Harouna says the pro-Qaddafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit. The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Qaddafi's family, including his wife, his daughter and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.

Most of Libya has welcomed the uprising that swept Qaddafi from power, though rebel forces — backed by NATO air strikes — have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte and the isolated southern town of Sabha.

The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Sirte and other loyalist areas, though some rebel officials have said they could attack Bani Walid sooner because it has so many prominent loyalists.